Thorpe Moeckel


Cold Mist Burning


January 2006

It was close to six in the morning on the last Saturday of duck season and my daughter was wailing. She stood by the chopping block, choking on tears, telling me her bunny was dying.

I looked at Sophie and was stunned by what seven years of life had made – the clarity in her eyes, the stoutness of her frame, the wavy hair and bed head. I normally didn’t mind the polyester stocking pajamas she wore, a gift from my mother, but now they looked frumpy to me, and toxic.

“Where’s Mama,” she asked, dodging my effort at a hug. Her syllables were pulpy with sobs. I heard the coffee boiling over, sizzling on the electric burner. There was a soft light starting out the window. The refrigerator hummed. Sophie was rounding the corner by the woodstove before I whispered, “Still asleep.”

The bunny had been having stomach problems for a week. Her belly gurgled every time you held her. It felt like something was percolating in there. We figured it would pass, that her stool would harden and stomach settle, but we didn’t know. Soon we’d have a ragged, elaborate network of cages fluffy and desolate with meat rabbits, but at this point we raised chickens and ducks for eggs and kept a few sheep and goats and a mule; Bonnie, as Sophie named her, was our first rabbit, a pet. We weren’t even sure if she was female.

My in-laws had found the bunny two weeks prior at a pet store in North Carolina, where we’d celebrated Christmas with them. They’d kept her a secret until late that morning, when Sophie thought all the gifts had been opened. She’d been immersed in making a picture with a new tin of pastels when they brought the bunny in her hutch from the basement, and then – I swear – my daughter’s eyes were two planets very close to the sun.

Sophie was snuggling up to her mama as I rounded the corner. This was Sophie’s way of waking her, and I didn’t want to interfere—she needed her mama now. It mulched a bed in me to watch as Kirsten stirred and then awoke with prompt attentiveness to what our daughter was saying.

We took turns holding the sick bunny. She was a lump of softness in our arms, her fur milky-white with ocher splotches. The slow leak of time on winter Saturdays felt even slower that morning. The small animal didn’t look afraid, but she didn’t look confident either. Her eyes appeared more empty than glassy. After a half hour or so, I saw that my plans had changed, that my date with the river would have to wait, and I set to frying eggs while Sophie and Kirsten exchanged the task of cradling her by the woodstove. When I glanced over, they had her wrapped in a pink handkerchief and were fingering at her mouth, trying to insert chalky, BB-like tablets of a homeopathic. The bunny’s nose twitched occasionally, but other than that there was no movement in the animal.

“Is she blinking,” I asked, remembering the fire needed another log.

“She doesn’t blink,” Sophie said. She had stopped crying for a minute or so. “I’m glad we got lots of pictures of her,” she muttered before the sniffles led to more gasps and smeared cheeks.

I slipped past them, lifted and then dropped a chunk of locust through the stove’s top door, which I held open with my right hand. A little smoke escaped and found its way to the dormer. Time passed. We ate eggs. Bonnie’s heart kept beating, but the rest of her appeared close, if not already gone to the other side. I felt less grief for the rabbit than for my daughter who was losing her friend after only two weeks. Sophie is an only child and every animal we keep becomes a surrogate sibling. I thought of this as I washed the dishes, worked on another cup of coffee, glanced out the window. The clock on the stove rolled to 8:00. The prior day’s rain was still frozen on the deck boards, but it was looking mild for January where we live sandwiched between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge -- something about the fog said so. Bumppo the rooster was making his usual ruckus. I doubted that the stout Barred Rock was telling me to be grateful for his hens, but the thought came to mind.
                       
There were beagles baying in the cedars at Breedon’s Bottom when I hauled the first of two loads of gear to the river. It was around 9:30. A heavy mist hung over the land. You couldn’t see a hundred yards. As I shouldered the canoe past two trucks parked in the gravel lot of the public boat access, I caught a glimpse of four beagles, nose down, snaking through the cedar-pocked pasture. They were thirty feet over the embankment and their baying couldn’t have sounded more mournful.

The last time I’d hunted that stretch of river, I fired once at the slowest of three wood ducks that jumped from the roots of the cutbank on river left. That place wasn’t far from the bridge. It had been a long shot, but when you paddle alone and jumpshoot, most shots are long. To exchange paddle for the gun between the legs, and then to raise the weapon, aim and fire, all before wood ducks manage a fair leap, is a matter of luck and vision as much as timing.

The canoe was half in the water and half on the rocks. All the gear rested in it but the gun, which was in my hands. I slid the shotgun from its sock, took three shells from my coat pocket and pressed them into place. The gun -- the Ford Ranger of shotguns, a Remington 1100 semi-automatic – was a hand-me-down from my father. The red and black striped gunsock oozed with the sharp reek of cleaning solvent, a smell I love. There must be the residue from as many of dad’s gun cleanings on the sock as my own, if not more.

When I was a kid, Dad and I still-hunted in swamps and flooded timberland. I only hunted with him from a canoe once. It was on the Etowah River north of our home in Atlanta. I remember missing a woodie we’d jumped; I’d fired too low. Dad smiled from his place in the stern when I looked back, shaking my head in frustration. My father didn’t like getting advice, so he was careful about giving it. Whether he trusted the world, our fates in it, I’m not sure. He was not a religious man in any organized or public way. Our plan that day was to walk the bank back to the truck. When the walk turned into a four-mile bushwhack through briars and tangles, we grunted and laughed our way through it, mouths straddling that border between grimace and smile.

Wood ducks are weird. You wouldn’t think a bird cryptic whose plumage consists of nine or ten different colors, all bold and piebald. But the wood duck can be hard to see. Some feathers are pigmented, others colored by structure, tricks of light and form, and their pattern mirrors some mirage of a winter dawn reflected and refracted from a misty and riffle-broken surface of water. The colors on that body resemble many other combinations of those elements as well.

First there’s the head – iridescent green and purple, not unlike the martins that buzz over our gardens in the spring. I’m reminded of the kingfisher by the wood duck’s crest, similarly colored as the head, as well as by the shocking white line extending from bill over the eye to the back of the crest. From its white throat there are white projections onto its face and neck that resemble the arms of some small human figure holding on for dear life. These white lines on the throat also bring to mind a second mouth, a grinning one, though birding-types call it a bridle or a bib.

Without the white streaks, the bird might lose some formality about its appearance, but not all of it. The bill is red with a thin yellow streak at the base and dark at the tip. The rest of its body is equally dazzling – the red apple chest, white-striped and black-barred; the daffodil-colored sides, the steely luster of its black back, chromatic sheen of its tail, reddish-violet beneath, and the white belly.

With that red bill, the wood duck, foraging at the water’s surface or else on land, ingests seeds, acorns, fruits, and bugs. I have never seen them feeding, however. When I see them, the wood ducks have usually noticed me and are flying away with a muted, gullish whistle that sounds a little like free-eek, free-eek. It isn’t unusual to hear them before I see them. If it is winter and I am hunting, I do not think much of the plumage then. I think at what point in the movement of the gun’s barrel towards the path of their flight do I pull the trigger – and is the safety off.

To see the duck at all requires close attention to the river’s edges. On the James where I hunt them, the banks are rooty and cut and snagged with boxelder, sycamore, stones, and vines. There is a skeletal, fence-like quality about the winter banks. Boulders and deadfall complicate the scene. The more littered the bank with wood and stone, the more closely I watch. Wood ducks like cover. They seem to me more wary than many other waterfowl, even the grebe. One is not likely to see wood ducks tooling around city or suburban or even farm ponds the way mallards often do.

***

With the first few strokes of the paddle, I noticed a purple plastic sled washed by highwater into a boxelder on a cobble bar by the bridge piling. It looked to be in fair condition, and I made a mental note to fetch it later, when I returned for the truck. They were calling for snow in the coming days, and Sophie would be happy to try a new old sled, especially knowing it was a gift of the river.

My fingers felt like they’d been in a jar of snow all morning. I wore a pair of brown wool gloves, but they weren’t doing the trick. It didn’t help to dwell on it, so I dwelled on the bunny. In the last week or so, Bonnie had developed a way of popping a one-eighty as she hopped. The motion contained an energy both spastic and graceful, and it was always a delight to behold. Sophie, Kirsten, and I, we’d hoot and cackle and go and hold her a while and run our fingers across her head and over her ears and down her back each time she did it.

I hugged the left bank for a while and then the right and then I opted for the middle. The river was running at a medium level, the liquid too scotch-dark for a waterway this far south – the result of runoff from the paper mill upstream. Rocks revealed themselves as dimples on the surface or as splashes and coils of foam. The canoe tracked with minimal effort of the paddle. I tried to watch with a balance of attention and aimlessness that works pretty well when I’m hunting or fishing or just paddling for the sake of being on the water in a small boat. But my field of vision was squiggly with migraine-like worms and flashes. It wasn’t a migraine, thank God, it was the light. The late-morning was deceptively bright with the low winter sun bleeding through the mist. You could see the particles of moisture. Every breath was a little sip. It smelled like the land was sweating and the river, too, though it was thirty-five degrees at most.

At once I slapped the paddle across the gunwales and mounted gun to shoulder. I found the bead down the barrel and followed it across the tops of the trees, which appeared ghastly, leafless as they were in the mist. I practiced this motion several more times, and as I did so, a blue heron flopped awkwardly to flight. I took aim at it. I was ghost-shooting. I would not fire. But the motion was satisfying. I exchanged gun for paddle again and watched the heron as it rounded a bend downstream, the motion of its five foot wingspan slow and sure.

I beached the canoe at Cedar Run, near Indian Rock. The ground was mealy with leaf-dank sand and gave way under my rubber boots. As I walked up the creek, I spun my arms around like propellers, one arm then the other, hoping to recover feeling in the fingers. I’d passed the creek’s outlet many times in my outings, but I’d never stopped here. The creek was low, the water chalky in the way of limestone streams. I stood a while by a trail rutted with 4-wheeler tracks, watching the flow splash through ledges and pool up at a bend below.

I imagined Kirsten and Sophie had dug a small hole near the concrete St. Francis statue by now. We liked Sophie’s choice of a burial place for the two-week old bunny. Watching the creek, I pictured them working there, mother and daughter, their motions earnest and careful, at the base of the maple, the wire fence and the pines beyond. Two winters back we’d buried a dear, old mutt on a cold day in January, so Sophie was no stranger to solemn affairs. At two, she’d watched my father sprinkle her great-grandfather’s ashes in the surf. I am almost certain she remembers that day better than I do.

My aim that morning was equally solemn: to take another life, the life of a very beautiful bird. My aim was to separate this bird from its mate, offspring, nest. But my intent was something else. I was after a feeling, a way of being alive that only a good hunt provides, kill or no kill. I was after, in essence, the way of the river and of all things. If I killed a duck or two this morning, I would feel immense gratitude and sadness and connection all at once, and much more. If I didn’t kill a wood duck, I would feel a longing and satisfaction of equal mystery and immensity.

Kirsten, Sophie, and I would no doubt survive without duck in our diet. But we like good food, food of our own raising or taking. If I took a duck, we would prepare it with all the care and reverence such a life and death and hunt deserved. We’d ingest the bird believing it would live on through us, our flesh as its flesh and its flesh as ours. Our relationship with the river and the land where we live deepens perhaps most tangibly when we eat. It happens with the deer, with the dove and grouse. And it is that way with the trout and chickens, mutton and goat, milk and fennel.
 
None of this piety saved me from the fact that Kirsten was frustrated right now. Frustrated that I left her alone with Sophie and the dead bunny and the burial. Frustrated that after a long week of classroom and office work her husband was on the river again. I knew this. I had sensed it when I left. My wife buries little besides seeds and dead pets. She wanted more to be happening on the farm, and was right in this – more firewood, more fence repair, more soil preparation, a hothouse for starting seeds. I felt bad that she was disappointed. But I was telling myself that being a father and husband meant being a source of grief sometimes. And that being in love and being committed meant learning to accept this, that then and only then might such a fate be tempered.

***

It felt good to be back in the canoe. The day was milder, my hands warm, knees and arms less stiff. The mist had lifted to a place above the trees along the bank. I could make out the houses on the bluff below Indian Rock. Though I grew up a few states south of Virginia, it turns out the grandfather of one of my best high school buddies, Chan Dillon, was raised in one of those houses. Their family ran the limestone quarry there. I imagined sending Chan a telepathic greeting, telling him I was at his roots and they were looking okay with the mist fading and the promise of blue sky soon.

There’s this way the river seems to move when the mist is moving over it and you’re moving through it and on it and looking around with such attention you could nearly conjure a wood duck out of the ether – it goes back to the first drop of blood and extends forth to all subsequent life and motion. This way had me in its grasp and I was liking it. It was a real pretty morning, in other words, and it was getting warmer, too.

I steered the canoe through the whitewater at the ledge of the old canal dam. I kept scanning the banks for wood ducks. Heaps of driftwood and fallen trees and hollowed bank drew my attention the way planets grab stargazers’ eyes. There were two more stretches of water where I’d seen ducks on prior trips, and I remained hopeful as I approached the island below which lay a promising log jam and good feeding water. I was hopeful for a sighting, if not a shot. This was my sixth trip that winter. If I dropped a wood duck, it would have been my first kill. I wanted that very much – the fresh, oily meat for dinner as much as the satisfaction of having made a kill.      

***           

There were no ducks, but that’s like saying there was no chocolate cake waiting when Sophie and Kirsten met me at Solitude Farm to run me back to the truck. The first blue in the sky appeared about the time they showed up. It was sharp, crisp blue, the kind of sky that could erase you.

“Is Bonnie resting okay,” I asked.

“She’s good,” Kirsten said. I felt a hard yearning as she scanned the ridges, thick brown hair brushing her shoulders. She seemed a little annoyed, but then she said something which cut along my every seam. “It feels like we’re in a storybook.”

“We buried her, Daddy,” Sophie added, plainly. She was studying the knot – a trucker’s hitch -- with which I was tying the canoe to the rack. “We put a creek stone over her. The big purplish one.” I remembered gathering that stone with her. Though we live just up Arcadia Road from the bridge over the river, there are several creeks only a little further down the road and they hold a bounty of good stone.

“I look forward to seeing it,” I said with as much tenderness as I could muster. “Sophie,” I continued, turning from the car and the boat and the rope, “I’m sorry we lost Bonnie today.” She said nothing, turned and stared downstream.
Once the canoe was fastened, we moseyed around the field. The mountains were visible now, all of them, and they looked less like overlords than wise old ladies. Pine Ridge still bore the thinnest veil of mist. It was like a photograph, an old Polaroid was coming to resolution, and we were in it somewhere, at the edge -- small, small figures.

We’d stopped near a turn in the fence when I caught my wife’s attention. “Kirsten,” I said, “Thanks for being here. I owe you.” She said nothing and looked towards the ridge, where a buzzard was arcing in a thermal. My veins, for a moment, could have been drainage ditches. I suddenly remembered seeing an eagle near the old canal lock below Indian Rock. It had been fifty yards off, milky-hooded and unmistakably a bald eagle. Kirsten remained silent. That was her response. She didn’t look at me. Bonnie came to mind then, how I’d held her the prior day and watched as she munched a bit of carrot. I’d been surprised she could eat it so quickly and how sharp her teeth and how she hadn’t nicked my fingers.

***

Kirsten and Sophie dropped me at the bridge to fetch the truck, a tough, little four-cylinder Mitsubishi that would be totaled in a month. Before heading home, I wandered down the hill to where two men stood by the same two trucks I’d passed earlier, while carrying the canoe. They were engaged in a task which had me curious. I’d stripped down to a wool shirt now – no more hat or gloves or flannel or vest or heavy coat – and I moved on the gravel, down the hill, with careful steps. Though it was warmer, everything about the landscape said the hardest of winter was yet to come.   

The men were skinning rabbits. Satisfied, panting beagles stared at me from their small box in the bed of an old Dodge Ram. I decided, after a moment, not to reach my fingers through the bars of the box’s door.

The men and I exchanged a curt greeting, a few words on our respective hunts. I had never hunted rabbit, and I asked them how it worked with the beagles, how far you followed them once they had a rabbit on their nose.

 “The beagles circle them back to us,” the one man said. He spoke with little expression and perhaps a little malice, as though I was poaching on something intimate, which I was.

 “That’s good,” I said. The men, stout and weathered, looked to be in their late sixties. Something about their faces told me their families had lived in those parts a long time – something as indigenous as canned meat. “Did you train them to do it that way?” I wondered aloud.

 “We don’t really train them,” the man running his knife under the rabbit’s skin said. In his jeans and tucked-in camouflage flannel button down and blaze orange ball cap, the fellow looked more formal than anyone I’d seen in a while. This struck me as a strange sign. “Ain’t that right, Purcell?”

“That’s right,” Purcell allowed. Purcell was dressed the same, except he wore a beige flannel and a camouflage ball cap. “That’s right. It’s bred into them. If they don’t do it, then they ain’t no use.”

I remembered the sled then, the purple one I’d seen in the boxelder, but I decided to return later with Sophie to fetch it. It’d be something to do. There was not a trace of mist anywhere over the land now, but there was a freshness in the air that made the trees seem more wise than they probably were.

I started to go, awkward about it, and as I did so, looking past the beagles crowded in their cage, I felt a surge of clarity. The day’s strands, variously braided, seemed to make a rope now, which held me, kept me from a great fall. Something good, perhaps hope or simply life, felt as close and vivid and cryptic as all the wood ducks I’d seen and hadn’t seen.

“Y’all have a good day,” I said. The man with the blood-smeared knife nodded as he dropped a chunk of the rabbit into a Ziploc. Off to the side, the wind carried a trace of fur to a place in the barbed wire fence -- it was darker than Bonnie’s had been.






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